Racism or Sociology? A Bundesbank Official Stirs Controversy

Earlier this month, German central banker Thilo Sarrazin was relieved of part of his duties at the German Bundesbank after disparaging comments he made about Turkish and Arab immigrants in Berlin sparked controversy and charges of racism. Numerous commentators, including the Social Democratic MP Sebastian Edathy and trade union leader Uwe Foullong, have accused Sarrazin of employing the same style of discourse as Germany’s “extreme right” -- i.e., neo-Nazi -- parties. Stephan Kramer, the general secretary of Germany’s semi-official Central Council of Jews in Germany, went still further, accusing Sarrazin of forming part of the intellectual tradition of “Göring, Goebbels, und Hitler.” In light of the obvious centrality of anti-Semitism to Nazi ideology and Sarrazin’s pronounced philo-Semitism, the comment is more than a little strange. (Kramer has since retracted the remark.) The Berlin district attorney’s office is reportedly considering bringing charges against Sarrazin for incitement to racial hatred or “Volksverhetzung.”

Sarrazin’s defenders -- who are few and far between in the established media and far more numerous on the Web -- accuse his critics of taking his remarks out of context. Only a handful of his remarks have been widely cited in the traditional media. These include, for instance, a comment about immigrant families that “are constantly producing more and more little girls in headscarves.” The remarks are contained in a far more wide-ranging interview on the economic problems and prospects of Berlin. From 2002 until April of this year, Sarrazin was the city official in charge of Berlin’s finances or “Finanzsenator.” The full interview, which appeared in the quarterly Lettre International, tops out at over 6,000 words: the equivalent of roughly an 8,000 word text in English.

Even on closer inspection, however, some of Sarrazin’s remarks clearly at least flirt with racial prejudice and even eugenics.

When one considers, moreover, the contributions of Turkish “guest workers” to Germany’s post-war “economic miracle” and the discrimination and even violence of which they have been the object, the vehemence of Sarrazin’s remarks about Turks seems particularly unjust. Sarrazin accuses Turks in Germany of being on the whole both “unwilling” and “incapable” of integrating into German society. But the policies of the German state have clearly contributed to the marginalization of Turkish immigrants.  For decades, to take only the most obvious example, children born in Germany of Turkish immigrant parents were not even accorded citizenship. Still today, they are in fact only accorded a kind of “pre-citizenship,” which can be withdrawn when they reach adulthood.

On the other hand, when Sarrazin’s remarks are restored to their context, it is equally clear that they form part of an overall analysis of the interaction between immigration and the generous German social welfare system that is heavily sociological in character. Moreover, far from being an all-purpose xenophobe in the spirit of the classic German neo-Nazi slogan “Foreigners Out!”, Sarrazin makes a point of singing the praises of certain immigrant groups ... as opposed to others.

Even what could appear to outsiders as the most radical of Sarrazin’s opinions is in fact not so radical in the German context. Thus, Sarrazin calls for a full stop to present immigration other than of “highly qualified” workers. In principle, however, it is already German policy only to accept “highly qualified” workers as new immigrants. An exception is made for the children or spouses of immigrants who are already settled in Germany. It should be noted, moreover, that supposed “ethnic Germans” from the former Soviet Union and other former Eastern bloc countries have an unrestricted right to settle in Germany. They are treated as a category entirely apart from the “non-Germanic” immigrants.

Sarrazin’s use of the expression “underclass” (Unterschicht) has been a cause of particular unease. It has even been suggested that he fully identifies Berlin’s Turks and Arabs with this “underclass.” But Sarrazin is in fact explicit that “native” Germans also belong to Berlin’s “underclass.” On closer inspection, it is clear that he is using the term as a structural category to refer to a segment of the population that is chronically unemployed or underemployed -- unquestionably, a major problem in Berlin. The Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson has long used the term in much the same sense in his studies of the so-called “black underclass” in American cities. When, however, Sarrazin identifies “underclass births” as a problem, it is clear that he has crossed the line from sociology into the far murkier territory of “socio-biology” or even eugenics.